This is a guest post by Jeff Kosokoff, the Head of Collection Strategy & Development for the Duke University Libraries.
In an outstanding example of Buzzword Bingo, EBSCO’s Friday press release announcing their acquisition of YBP from Baker & Taylor (B&T) says that they are assembling the tools “to truly streamline and improve administrative (‘back end’) services in ways that optimize the impact these services have on the end user experience” (EBSCO PR: https://www.ebsco.com/news-center/press-releases/ebsco-shows-major-commitment ).
If B&T was trying to move YBP, then there were likely multiple bidders, perhaps ProQuest, perhaps one or more of the major publishing concerns. After all, YBP is one of a small handful of comprehensive book jobbers still standing and they have well-established relationships with a large percentage of libraries. At its core, this is a business decision, and EBSCO is not a charity. The acquisition is a way to maximize profits at a company that has been very good at doing so. There is real value in creating more seamless and streamlined workflows within libraries, and this is especially true where libraries are facing staffing challenges. This recent acquisition, along with the recent demise of Swets, has certainly allowed EBSCO to extend their customer base and increase engagement.
After the initial shock, I suppose not many in the library community were particularly surprised. YBP faces increasing financial challenges as library print book acquisition expenditures fall. As we would expect, the narrative from the parties was upbeat and filled with promises that nothing would change beyond some wonderful synergies to come. EBSCO is continuing to position itself as the closest thing we have to a soup-to-nuts library information content and services vendor. EBSCO claims to be the largest library discovery service provider (6,000+ customers), the leading e-content provider (360,000+ serials, 57,000+ e-journals, 600,000+ e-books). Over the past 20 years, they have moved from a serials jobber to a reseller of abstracting and indexing, a major serials and book jobber, a comprehensive and state-of-the-art discovery service, a contract publisher and aggregator of a massive amount of full-text content through a diverse portfolio of subject databases, an e-book aggregation platform. EBSCO has a strong engagement with development of the KOHA open source ILS. While the materials outcomes are unclear, EBSCO is even a partner in the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association. Adding YBP also brings in another major library analytics tool, Collection HQ to join EBSCO’s Plum Analytics.
So, what’s the problem?
- Not Enough Competition?
What are the risks associated with giving too much of your business to a single company? What if things go sour? Many librarians have been frustrated with the dwindling choices we have in the jobber market. In the halcyon summer of 2014, my institution felt like it had three choices for our serials jobbing. When Swets went under last fall, we were left with only two choices. The book jobber market has faced so much consolidation over the past 2 decades that those of us who are dissatisfied with our book jobbers do not feel we have many options.
- Too Big/Monolithic To Fail?
I tend to agree that EBSCO can leverage this merger to enable efficiencies. Those efficiencies will certainly be best realized if a library commits more resources to EBSCO’s family of library services and systems. Business risk assessment professionals can offer comment here, but doing too much business with a single corporate entity is fraught with obvious risks. The movement by EBSCO and others to promote end-to-end library systems flies in the face of efforts to modularize library systems and services. Many have been working to build interoperable components instead of single systems. Modularity allows one to both mitigate risk and promote flexibility and evolution of the local set of systems over time. How will we feel limited when it becomes difficult or impossible to replace an unsatisfactory component of a monolithic implementation? The more singular one’s commitment to a small number of providers, the impacts of failure and obsolescence grow. And what happens if EBSCO’s corporate parent gets into trouble? Admittedly, EBSCO is probably the most diversified company in our space. In fact, it is a little surprising not to see EBSCO’s Vulcan Industries competing with Demco and Brodart in the lucrative library fixtures space.
- Can a wholly-owned subsidiary really remain agnostic?
For those of us in the trenches of emerging e-book workflows, a continuing challenge is metadata supply and alignment. This is an emerging area of practice, and while ProQuest, perhaps the major aggregated e-book competitor to EBSCO, says it will be business as usual (PQ Blog: http://www.proquest.com/blog/pqblog/2015/Support-Continues-with-YBP.html ), it seems like they might be more than a little nervous. Often a book is available on multiple platforms, and one wonders if long-standing meta-data workflow issues between YBP and EBL will receive the attention they deserve. If I were a smaller e-book publisher that does not want to join with EBSCO’s platform, I think would be very anxious about the acquisition.
- Can we learn anything from EBSCO’s past behavior?
During my 20-year professional career in libraries, I have witnessed a lot of very aggressive behavior from vendors. In my experience, EBSCO has been one of the most aggressive. In the 1990s, at a time when most discovery providers were content to resell existing databases, EBSCO brought new A&I products to market that directly competed with existing ones in business, health care and the social sciences. While one could argue this drove improvements, the outcome was essentially a doubling of our subscription loads. Combined with exclusive agreements with minor and major periodical publishers such as Time-Warner and Harvard Business Publishing, libraries have sometimes felt that EBSCO was forcing the issue and gaining something of an unproductive advantage. In the discovery space, there are those who feel EBSCO takes an all-or-nothing approach where their systems work great if-and-only-if you also bring along all your subscriptions to their platform.
Consolidation and further amalgamation in the library information services market has been a trend for a few years now. We have fewer ILS vendors, fewer jobbers, bigger players, and lots and lots of financial capital trying to make lots and lots of money in our industry. Perhaps resistance is futile; perhaps it is the only rational choice.